To think of Melbourne as the curry-bashing capital of Australia, I have to bend my mind around a conflicting reality: the city also has one of the best collections of Indian documents in the world. From the Sixties, Melbourne’s La Trobe University has been collecting Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil texts, colonial documents, modern Hindi literature and contemporary Indian media. For instance, it is on La Trobe’s server that you’ll find the first Indian census report (1871), not on our Census Commissioner’s website.
It isn’t easy to square this abiding interest in India with a racism wave, so I wonder if we are being a little simplistic. There can be suspicions of racism anywhere — including in India, if you remember Andrew Symonds’ allegations. But colour is also a label that fits complex realities into a universally understood discourse, handy for mass media. In this case, it’s globalisation.
Globalisation requires free flow of economic assets across national borders, conditioned primarily by market forces. That means products and services, capital, labour… Oh, dear, yes, you can’t make a thing without labour. Everyone loves foreign investment and a nice cup of Ethiopian coffee, but the first world gets mighty fidgety over the mobility of labour. The loss of jobs through outsourcing or manpower imports has unpleasant political implications, and labour mobility is an evergreen North-South issue at WTO talks.
Recall the uproar over the loss of a few US jobs in the first wave of outsourcing — nothing like what’s happened in the recession. Indian call centre executives used to dread the calls that came in when it was night on the US West Coast, and began with a challenge in a slurred voice: “Are you in Bangalore?” They were drunken, racially abusive calls, but race was a handy peg on which the unemployed, baffled by globalisation, hung their helpless rage.
That was the US during a boom. Now, it’s Australia during a bust. Australian campuses were early movers in the globalisation of education services. Students were courted because they brought wealth to universities and communities. And after they graduated, they contributed skills to the local economy. Sound economic logic, but hardship turns it on its head. Australians low down on the food chain are probably feeling cornered by the economic downturn. To them, Indians now look like competitors, as easily identified marks for theft. Racist sentiments would explain the level of violence we have seen, but the primary motive could be different.
It’s happened before, elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Brixton is now regarded as the birthplace of multicultural Britain, where 492 Jamaicans who sailed in on the Empire Windrush settled. That was in 1948, when Britain was rebuilding after the War and welcomed manpower from the former colonies. But then there were the infamous Brixton Riots of the Thatcherite years, when an economically foundering Britain sought solace in the imperial nostalgia of The Far Pavilions and The Jewel in the Crown while Black kids were hunted by the police in the streets.
How you view the other is conditioned by how secure you feel yourself. Maybe that’s all that is troubling Australia now, and it will pass. And racism? Hell, it’s everywhere. Including in India where caste, our desi flavour of racism, continues to flourish.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine